This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
I first heard the term "horse syndrome" during a hike at Matanuska Peak two years ago.
A friend and I climbed up and down the teetering boulder field leading to the summit without any trouble. Then, on a stretch of flat ground, I slipped and came down with a hard thud amid muddy roots and patches of cow parsnip — and made a casual observation.
"You know when I'm most likely to fall? It's not when I'm on something steep and crazy, but on flat ground. Like, within a mile of the trailhead."
My friend nodded knowingly. "That's horse syndrome."
Avalanche expert Bruce Tremper describes "horse syndrome" as "a rush to get back to the barn," and it's one of the human factors that can get people into trouble in the backcountry.
My best explanation of horse syndrome, based on personal experience, is that when I'm focused on getting back to the trailhead quickly, I start to get tunnel vision. When I'm less aware of what's going on around me, I abandon precautionary measures to save time in a rush to get home. That's when trouble begins.
Confidence and self-reliance in the outdoors are tremendous assets. But when I start getting cocky, I have to stop myself, because then I know something's about to go wrong.
Eager to get home from Eagle and Symphony Lakes last spring, I skipped through the boulder field and slipped on a slick rock. (I had forgotten one of my cardinal rules: Never trust a wet rock.) The time saved from zipping through the boulders was instead spent administering first aid.
What's possibly my most egregious case of horse syndrome occurred earlier this week.
On Monday, I headed up Stivers Gully off the East Fork of the Eklutna River a little too late to summit Bold Peak. With darkness looming, a dusting of snow and a steady rain settling in — and a dead headlamp I should've checked before leaving home — I opted to sleep under an overhanging boulder in the steep gully. I planned to resume my descent in the morning light.
I cached my food, cleared out the stabbiest rocks from my nesting place, slipped on all my layers and climbed into my emergency bivouac sack. Every so often, I'd wake up to a splat of rain dripping from the rock ceiling above me. The sound of rockfall echoed in the gully throughout the night, prompting me to reach out for my helmet to make sure it was still by my side.
Come morning, I poked my head out of the bivy to remind myself where I was and how much farther I had to go.
The rain slowed my descent on the gully's slippery, loose rock, which commanded all of my attention. The hike back to my bicycle was soggy but uneventful. I had only a flat, 10.5-mile bike ride ahead of me now, with more than three hours until the cutoff I had given my safety buddy: "If you don't hear from me by noon tomorrow, that's panic time."
I'm a terrible biker. It's in my tagline for this column every week for a reason. Riding the Eklutna Lakeside Trail is about as extreme as I get on a mountain bike. But on Tuesday morning, I grew overly confident to the point of recklessness, weaving around rocks and wide puddles on the gravel in my rush to reach the trailhead — and promptly crashed.
Grit drove into my elbow as my shoulder throbbed from the impact. A mystery bump appeared on my hip. My bike chain was broken.
So, in my haste to get back to the car, I found myself in the position of having to walk my bike for 9 miles in the driving rain, half-trotting to beat the clock and let my friend know I was OK before he called for help.
When I'm in hazardous terrain like Stivers Gully, it's easier for me to spot danger. I'll have my guard up with the understanding that I need to be careful and the risk of injury is high. I'll be far more cautious there than on a flat stretch of trail.
And that's only natural. I'd be one skittish hiker if I took every step as though it made the difference between life and death.
But my reminder to myself — and to others who may be susceptible to horse syndrome — is that on any backcountry outing, it's not over till it's over. Growing careless on easy terrain is a surefire way to invite calamity into my life.
I'll save the congratulations for when I'm off the trail, safe and sound.
With my apologies, you'll have to excuse me now. My bicycle has a hot date with a bike mechanic, and it's not going to get there on its own.